CBGP sustainable agriculture research project awarded with a $5 million grant

CBGP Professor Luis Rubio leads research aimed to obtain cereals with minimum requirements for nitrogen fertilizer.


Crop productivity depends heavily on the availability of nitrogen to plants. In some crops, such as legumes, symbiotic biological nitrogen fixation acts as a natural fertilizer providing nitrogen needed for plant growth. However, the main cereal crops are unable to form symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and require the addition of synthetic chemical nitrogen fertilizers to increase their yields. Extensive use of nitrogenous commercial fertilizers in developed countries is an enormous environmental threat. On the other hand, the cost of chemical fertilizers is prohibitively expensive for small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, bringing poverty and hunger derived from very low yields of crops.


In the search for solutions to help alleviate this problem, the laboratory of Luis Rubio at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) investigates the transfer of nitrogen fixation genes to plants. This research program, for which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded funding of $5 million, aims to obtain cereals with minimum requirements of nitrogen fertilizers that will produce higher and more consistent returns on their crops.


With this funding, the Gates Foundation continues to support a project initiated by Prof. Rubio in 2011, in which concepts, tools and methodologies for bioengineering nitrogen fixation were obtained.


This new phase consists of an international collaborative effort with the participation of renowned researchers in the areas of biochemistry of nitrogen fixation, gene regulation, cereal biotechnology, and synthetic biology. The consortium includes the laboratories of Prof. Luis Rubio and Dra. Elena Caro from the Center for Biotechnology and Plant Genomics (CBGP) of Universidad Politécnica de Madrid - Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria; Prof. Paul Christou from the Department of Plant Production and Forest Science of the University of Lleida; Prof. Dennis Dean from the Department of Biochemistry at Virginia Tech (USA); and Dr. Leonardo Curatti from the Fundación para Investigaciones Biológicas Aplicadas (Argentina). In addition, the project will benefit from the collaboration with Prof. Christopher Voigt, from the Department of Biological Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA).


Luis Rubio is an expert in biochemistry of nitrogen fixation, an area in which achieved international recognition through his work at the University of California-Berkeley. He was awarded with the prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council. From 2011 to 2016 his laboratory developed the first phase of the BNF-Cereals project that now continues. He is a regular speaker and member of the Steering Committees of the European Nitrogen Fixation Conference and the International Congress on Nitrogen Fixation. He is currently Deputy Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Plant Genomics (UPM-INIA), a research center with a label of Excellence dedicated to the study of plants and associated microorganisms.


Elena Caro is an expert in plant gene expression. She has dedicated her career to the study of gene regulation in model plants, with specific interest on epigenetics, leading to publications in first class journals. After completing a PhD in the CSIC and a postdoctoral stay at the University of California-Los Angeles, she was recruited by UPM through the Ramon y Cajal Program. Currently, she is the PI of a research line interested on studying the regulation of transgene expression in synthetic biology efforts.


More information: http://www.cbgp.upm.es/nitrogen_fixation.php